It's Not Easy Being Green

April 21, 1993|By STEPHANIE SHAPIRO | STEPHANIE SHAPIRO,GreenPeace Action, Pennsylvania Resources Council and Seventh Generation. Staff Writer

Jennifer Smith cleans her floors with a solution of vinegar, baking soda, hot water and a dash of ammonia. She buys recycled toilet paper and no paper towels. Her kitchen faucet and shower head are equipped with an aerator that limits water flow. Ms. Smith recharges household batteries with a solar charger, uses a clothesline instead of a dryer, and covets a non-electric floor sweeper offered in the Real Goods catalog of "products for energy independence."

And she never buys anything that has been heavily wrapped in plastic and cardboard.

For Ms. Smith, living an environmentally sound life means being an informed and modest consumer. "I'm a very conscientious buyer," says the senior manager for education at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

In her total commitment to the environment, Ms. Smith is probably atypical. But millions of American consumers share the spirit, if not the letter, of Ms. Smith's dedication.

Tomorrow, the 23rd anniversary of Earth Day will be celebrated. It has only been in the past four years, however, that consumers, alarmed by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, ozone depletion, acid rain and other eco-emergencies, have taken Earth Day's year-round mantra -- reduce, reuse, recycle -- to heart.

"We're seeing that the environment is having a tremendous impact on consumer behavior," says Anthony Casale, president of American Opinion Research, the parent company of Environmental Research Associates in Princeton, N.J.

In a recent Advertising Age study, for example, 73 percent of those surveyed said that environmental marketing claims sometimes or often affected buying decisions.

Business -- from thriving entrepreneurs creating new products less harmful to the environment to Fortune 500 companies retooling huge industrial plants to cut pollution -- is responding in kind.

In the first half of 1992, 11.4 percent of new products marketed in the United States made "green" claims, according to an Environmental Protection Agency report on environmental marketing terms.

"I honestly believe green thinking is becoming a fact of life, in both big and small business . . . not only because it's socially responsible; it's going to be good business," says Norman Dean, president of Green Seal, a non-profit labeling program for household products based in Washington.

Today, a staggering array of items claim to be biodegradable, non-ozone depleting, non-petroleum based, un-bleached and recycled.

Giant "eco expos" held throughout the country showcase biodegradable pens, synthetic textiles fashioned from plastic soda bottles, organic clothing and shoes made from recycled rubbish.

Mainstream manufacturers and retail chains establish in-house environmental initiatives, tout their own green products and form alliances with environmental watchdog groups. Many food companies now sell products made from ingredients gently harvested from the South American rain forest.

In 1992, the green mail-order catalog industry reaped $38 million pitching everything from laundry powder, deodorant crystals and enviro-toothbrushes to necessities for living off the utility grid, according to Carl Frankel, editor and publisher of GreenMarket Alert, a Connecticut newsletter that tracks green industries.

And environmental boutiques such as Environmentally Sound Products in Towson and Blue Planet in Boston are cropping up.

Young people, beneficiaries of environmental education programs missed by their parents, are the best customers for environmental products, Mr. Casale says.

Sara Burch, a Bryn Mawr School junior, is a prime example. After rallying her family to recycle, use sink and shower aerators and buy in bulk from Environmentally Sound Products, the young environmental activist is now lobbying other students to use canvas lunch sacks and avoid drink boxes.

Shopping green is a challenge, she says. "You really have to look hard. You can't just believe everything you read."

Discriminating consumers like Sara, overwhelmed by competing claims of environmental friendliness, may refer to scores of books, like "Shopping for a Better World: The Quick and Easy Guide to Socially Responsible Supermarket Shopping," published by the Council on Economic Priorities.

In 1992, the Federal Trade Commission developed guidelines for companies that make fuzzy environmental claims such as "environmentally friendly," "cruelty free" or "biodegradable." So far, the FTC has taken action against 20 companies, including Mr. Coffee, which allegedly claimed falsely that its filters were "cleaned and whitened without using chlorine bleach," an environmentally unfriendly material.

New labeling programs, such as Green Seal and Scientific Certification Systems, which set environmentally safe standards for products, will also help consumers discern between what Carl Frankel of GreenMarket Alert calls "greened-up" versions of established products and "deep-green" products that actively enhance the environment.

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